In March 2020, Amber, then 20, pulled into the Target parking lot as she got a call from her mom, asking if she'd seen the news. "It's legal again," her mom told her. "You can do it."
The week of March 22, Governor Greg Abbot issued an order stopping medical procedures that weren't deemed "medically necessary," a COVID-era measure supposedly intended to preserve medical equipment that effectively banned abortions in the state. (At the same time, Abbott consistently refused to implement safety precautions or shelter-in-place orders to slow the spread of COVID-19.) Earlier in the month, it had been easy for Amber (whose last name is being withheld for privacy) to get into Planned Parenthood to confirm a pregnancy, but the requirement that she wait a few days to proceed with an abortion was detrimental. A few days after she went in, she got the call: She likely wouldn't be able to get an abortion in Texas.
"You could hear the disappointment in their voices," Amber told Scalawag about the person on the other end of the line who explained they'd have to cancel her appointment. She said okay, thank you, and shakily hung up. Then, she threw her phone and cried.
When she told her mother about the cancellations—for about a week, they'd call her, make the appointment, then have to cancel—her mom, who Amber said was supportive of her choice, in part, because she had also gone to Planned Parenthood many times in her life, tried to reassure her. They'd stay on top of it. They'd watch the news. The two talked about loans they could take out or who they could stay with to go across state lines if needed.
About two weeks after her initial visit, she finally made it in for her second appointment. Amber recalled seeing protesters outside harassing people, but the relief of having gotten the care she needed drowned them out. As she walked past the protesters again in their lawn chairs outside when she was leaving the clinic, the weight she'd been carrying felt lifted—she felt "so much relief that for a second, they just didn't exist."
Amber, who is now 23 and about to graduate college, also told Scalawag about another time she saw protesters in lawn chairs: Outside of a polling place when she and her boyfriend voted last election cycle, a small group was holding signs supporting Republican candidates and jeering. As the only two nonwhite people there, Amber and her boyfriend were treated noticeably differently from the older, white women in line in from of them.
As Becca Andrews reported for Mother Jones, "abortion has always been a normal part of life." A nationwide abortion ban has long been the goal of the anti-abortion movement—and the Republican legislators whose platforms have been built on that so-called "pro-life" promise. Amber was one of the countless young people caught in the crossfire of abortion restrictions that have come to fruition in recent years—but measures intended to restrict abortion access have been playing out her entire life.
"I thought what I went through in 2020—that was just a blip, and they couldn't get away with doing anything like that ever again," Amber said of her struggle with Texas' abortion bans. But it wasn't. "It was building up to like the fruition of what we have now."
What we have now is what Southern reproductive justice movements had already prepared for. The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, banning abortion in most of the South. This year's midterm elections—the first election cycle since Roe fell—brings abortion specifically to the ballot via measures in California, Michigan, Montana, Vermont, and Kentucky. According to reporting from Reckon, some measures, like Vermont's, would enshrine the right to abortion into the state constitution. Others, like Kentucky's Amendment 2, would do the opposite by amending the state's constitution to state that nothing within it creates a right to abortion.
Beyond ballot measures, abortion remains a key issue in races at all levels across the country, including for voters in Generation Z. Polling by Voters of Tomorrow found that abortion is a top issue for young voters in swing states. A July report from CIRCLE's Abby Kiesa also detailed that young people are supportive of abortion rights and that their action could be decisive in battleground midterm races across the country.
Abortion and reproductive health are both major reasons Amber has voted in the past—and a reason she will be voting this year. Lately, she's been flooded with Greg Abbott ads, on Hulu, TV, and radio segments. She stares at the billboards she drives past—spreading misinformation on abortion—and wonders how many people see them and internalize them.
For all the debate on whether young people will turn out in 2022, there's a mismatch between "what will engage young people" gimmicks, and what young people are experiencing on the ground every day. Young people in Southern states are organizing for abortion year-round, and in the lead-up to midterms, their actions are targeted toward what will improve the material conditions of their peers and neighbors.
More than "Go Vote"
"I've driven across state lines numerous times, and will continue to do so," Mike Brooke, the 21-year-old co-lead of the Alabama Youth Activist Alliance—a part of national organizing network Advocates For Youth—told Scalawag. Mike explained that the reproductive justice framework—defined by SisterSong as the "human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities," was developed by Black women, people of color, and queer people.
Mike said the platform especially speaks to young people who have grown up in the age of the internet and seeing people's stories and different experiences via Instagram. They know change doesn't happen overnight. "There's a million different reasons for oppression," Mike said.
Tackling life on an issue-by-issue basis does not work for young people who understand all issues are interconnected.
"I think the biggest disparity [in] abortion access was that people refuse to understand that if we don't fight for intersectionality, we will never have the future that we want," Mike said.
Mike believes, yes, more pro-choice legislators would help the cause. But it's not enough. "That doesn't change people getting the transportation that they need to appointments. That doesn't change all the people in this state that continue to spread lies all over social media, in churches to congregations of more than thousands of people," they continued. The most important thing, they said, is educating communities on what abortion is and ensuring people can access abortion if they need one.
Mike also knows there is work to be done in terms of education and direct support that's never going to show up in "just go vote!" social media quips.
They do think that, "because of how the movement is shifting," abortion access will be an issue that draws more young people into politics or movements. "I think the fall of Roe really opened a lot of peoples' eyes."
Kadin Love, a 23-year-old community organizer in Mississippi and part of Advocates for Youth's Abortion Out Loud program, said that the abortion decision "definitely turned young people away from the idea of the system as we know it, in general."
They didn't see millions of people at their abortion protests, despite being the epicenter of the work. They also didn't see national support for what's happening in Jackson, he said. This includes the clean water crisis—where Love pointed to creating wells for community-centered water or buying water filters, because they know they "can't rely on anyone else."
"Black Southerners, Black Mississippians will never be supported nationally, Love explained, "and that's a feeling that [is] hanging over our head… We're moving towards midterms and without any real investment into dismantling these voter discrimination systems in the South," he added. Folks need more support than they have, he said, especially in states where this is a continual battleground—a continual reality.
"Also, Black Mississippians haven't really felt the benefits of the electoral process in a very long time in any real tangible ways," he continued, noting that Mississippi is 40 percent Black but has a Republican legislature elected through gerrymandered districts. (And, as Renee Bracey Sherman and Tracy Weitz wrote for Rewire, anti-Blackness is what led to Mississippi seeking to criminalize abortion, writing "because of its own internal racism, the reproductive rights movement is ill-equipped to meet the challenge of this moment.")
"It definitely leads to a lot of disillusionment, not only with our state government, but also with the national conversation around abortion rights in general," Love added. "What we're saying moving forward is, especially in a place like Jackson, Mississippi, the state cannot be relied on to provide us any support."
Instead, Love said that the work they are engaging in is that of trying to find ways for continued community-centered support, including creating abortion funds and providing access in whatever ways they can, and handing out condoms or contraceptives. Love explained it as "taking the resources we have and doing what we can with them, as opposed to trying to rely on the state government that we know won't do anything."
In Texas, Nimisha Srikanth, is a 21-year-old president of Feminists for Reproductive Equity and Education (FREE Aggies). As part of Advocates for Youth's student organizing team and abortion support collective, Srikanth helps run two different resource services, giving out emergency contraception, condoms, pregnancy tests, and whatever someone might need to maintain their reproductive health. One resource service is for Texas A&M students, and the other is in collaboration with Jane's Due Process, a Texas abortion fund, focused on reaching young people ages 12 to 24.
Over the summer—when most students weren't on campus to protest—the Commissioners Court removed the on-campus early voting location at Texas A&M University, which Srikanth said "feels like voter suppression." She even feels like she is disillusioned, though she voted the day she spoke to Scalawag. The political system is confusing, she said, and there's a prioritization of older adult voices. "Young people are very disillusioned—what is the point of making your voice heard if you know they're never gonna listen to you?"
Srikanth isn't optimistic about midterms, and knows there's no guarantee Democrats will be able to act on issues she cares about. Still, she holds on to hope by knowing that her vote at least might cancel out one conservative's vote. She believes that young people who become engaged in abortion access through the reproductive justice framework become more engaged in other issues, too. "I feel like it's just natural when you are operating in that framework—you start paying attention to a lot of different things," she said, adding that she's been involved in environmental sustainability campaigns and voting rights campaigns, too. "There's just so many different facets and we know that all of them are crucial in advancing reproductive justice."
There are so many "young people fighting that good fight down here in the South," she said, noting that the Texas abortion fund workers are risking their lives to help people access care. "When it comes to not just repro justice, but when it comes to anything that's impacting society, you have to get people involved, especially young people, because this is our country," she said.
Many others are getting involved before they can cast a ballot. J.L., a 16-year-old in South Carolina, is still too young to vote in the midterm election. But in 2016, she and her family became involved in trying to increase voter turnout. At the time, she volunteered with local campaigns, texted, and phone banked to advocate for an end to gun violence. But when the SCOTUS ruling dropped, she knew she wanted to focus on giving her time to abortion access. As a minor with no real income and no ability to drive, she found a virtual volunteer opportunity with a local abortion fund, writing for the website and social media, and contributing to research on graphics.
She said it's incredibly frustrating to be a young person in these times—and that the ones who have the most to gain from bettering the world seem to have the least say in decisions made about their futures. She feels afraid that she'd go to school and never come home because of gun violence. She's also afraid that she or a friend would be forced to carry a pregnancy. Living "in a state and a nation that's not passing laws in my best interest and for the next two years, I have no say in that."
Since she can't vote, she's trying to help ensure people around her make informed choices, and thinks that it isn't just the big races that matter. Not everyone can wait until a pro-choice candidate is elected, she said, and whether abortion is legal or not, barriers persist.
Meanwhile, in Kentucky, Jane Delaney, an 18-year-old, has "every hope, every ambition," that Kentuckians will vote no on Amendment 2. Jane helped organize a protest on July 4, 2022, to protest Roe being overturned. Earlier in the year, she was working at Starbucks as a barista, and people at the Kentucky People's Union helped her get some information on potentially unionizing. To her, unionization and organization go hand-in-hand: "They're so intertwined in today's society, because especially with all this stuff going on with Starbucks and the nurses and the teachers," she told Scalawag. "It's about how you need to reclaim your rights."
"The fact of the matter is that abortion and reproductive rights have been under attack in Kentucky for decades now," said Meghana, a 25-old Kentuckian, whose last name is being withheld to protect privacy. It hasn't always been the case that there was only one abortion clinic in Louisville providing abortions. Currently, abortion is illegal in Kentucky. "That was something that Kentucky legislatures forced on Kentucky patients, " Meghana continued.
Meghana believes what's often left out of the conversation on abortion bans is that abortion access affects everyone. "It is an issue that touches the very core of bodily autonomy and freedom," she added.
She hopes that increased voter accessibility in Kentucky will encourage more young people to vote. "I think that now more than ever, young people are realizing that their future depends on this—their present and their future, not just their future," she said. "Young people get abortions in Kentucky. And this affects them so deeply. I do think it's going to impact and bring people to the polls."
Holding power to account
Maggie Watts, a 24-year-old organizer in North Carolina for NextGen America, said she was in the field registering young people to vote when Roe v. Wade was overturned, and that people were coming up to her, teary-eyed, and registering after getting a notification on their phone. She said that while a lot of people she spoke to felt they initially didn't know as much about voting or about midterms, abortion was a concrete example she could point them to where their vote can make a big difference: The race for a Senate seat in North Carolina could get down to a small margin, just a few hundred ballots.
Data from CIRCLE reported that there are 6 percent more young people ages 18 to 24 registered to vote than there were in November 2018, including in states like North Carolina and Georgia. Especially with issues like climate change coming to a head all at once, Watts said, a lot of young people are "thinking about your future and having control over your life." Once Roe fell, it was another reminder that making a generation's voices heard at larger rates mattered, and is a chance to "hold those in power that haven't been listening to us accountable."
In Mississippi, Love said he thinks one of the most radical things that's ever happened in American history was Freedom Summer 1964, "this meeting of Northern and Southern organizing principles, that the South gets the support that they needed, while the North kind of gained an understanding of what grassroots organizing was." When we talk about something like abortion—which affects so many people nationwide—that kind of conversation has to happen again, Love said, "in order for anything radical or effective to happen."
On Tuesday, stats on whether young people turned out will sweep the internet—alongside analysis on what drove them to the polls. Young people in the South will need abortions. Young people in the South work to ensure their communities are engaged, supported, and resourced. In addition to everything else—they turn out there.
This season on As The South Votes, Scalawag and Anoa Changa are teaming back up to talk about what's working, what's not, and what lessons Southern organizers have learned in their efforts to make the region we love a more just place.